Jurors Wednesday began deliberating whether the so-called “Hollywood Ripper” was sane or insane at the time of the stabbing and mutilation murders of two Southland women, including one who was killed and nearly decapitated hours before she was set to go out on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury convicted Michael Gargiulo, 43, last Thursday of first-degree murder for the Feb. 22, 2001, killing of 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin in her Hollywood home, and the Dec. 1, 2005, slaying of 32-year-old Maria Bruno in her El Monte apartment.
Jurors also convicted him of trying to kill 26-year-old Michelle Murphy, who survived being stabbed eight times in her Santa Monica apartment in April 2008, along with attempting to escape from jail, and found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder while lying in wait.
If jurors find that Gargiulo was sane at the time of the crimes, they would be asked in a third phase of the trial to recommend whether Gargiulo should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. If they find he was insane, he would be sent to a state mental hospital.
One of Gargiulo’s attorneys, Dale Rubin, showed the panelists photos of the murder victims’ bloody bodies on a large courtroom screen.
“… The question becomes can a legally sane person do this? Can this end result be done by a legally sane person? And we believe the answer is no,” Rubin said, noting that the defense has the burden to prove Gargiulo was legally insane at the time of the crimes.
The lawyer told jurors that his client suffered “horrendous, monstrous child abuse” starting at about age 2.
“If you look at what was done to Ashley Ellerin and Maria Bruno, I don’t know, I cannot conceive of a sane person doing that to someone else,” Gargiulo’s attorney said.
Deputy District Attorney Garrett Dameron told jurors that Gargiulo is “not normal,” but said “evil does not mean insane,” and maintained that the defendant knew what he was doing was wrong.
The prosecutor said the attacks were “calculated,” “planned” and “meticulously carried out,” calling them “systematic murders done by someone who enjoyed the act itself.”
Dameron noted that an expert retained for the prosecution opined that Gargiulo suffered only from anti-social personality disorder, and disputed a defense expert’s conclusion that Gargiulo suffered from dissociative identity disorder, which the defense argued could have caused him to go into an “amnesiac” or fugue state.
“This is not the work of somebody who’s legally insane,” the prosecutor told jurors. “Michael Gargiulo was legally sane when he committed these crimes.”
The arguments followed a day of testimony in the trial’s sanity phase.
Vianne Castellano, a forensic psychologist who testified on behalf of the defense, told the jury that Gargiulo has “a severe mental illness that has rendered him insane, in my opinion, that shows up in the character and nature of the murders and the attempted murder that he was convicted of.”
Castellano noted that there is a “mental health history” in Gargiulo’s family, and testified that she believed he suffered four categories of abuse — physical confinement, severe physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse — beginning at about age 2 and involving “multiple abusers.” She described what was done to him as “monstrous” and called his crimes “frenzied” and “rage killings” in which he was fighting demons from his past, but said she did not know what triggered him to go into dissociative episodes.
Deborah Budding, a clinical neuropsychologist who was asked to assess Gargiulo for the defense, said the defendant had an average IQ but had been in special education since third grade due to emotional and behavioral reasons, and had self-regulatory problems, mood problems and impulsivity.
The prosecution’s expert, clinical psychologist Robert Schug, said he believes Gargiulo meets the criteria for anti-social personality disorder — which does not qualify for legal insanity — but did not find any other evidence of mental disease or defect in the defendant.
Schug testified that he did not find any evidence that Gargiulo would have been unable to understand that his actions were legally or morally wrong.
The violent nature of the attacks earned the killer the moniker “Hollywood Ripper.” Deputy District Attorney Dan Akemon also referred to Gargiulo as the “Boy Next Door” killer, noting that he lived near all of his victims and telling jurors that Gargiulo targeted the women in “frenzied knife attacks” that are “inextricably linked.”
Gargiulo is awaiting trial separately in Illinois on a murder charge stemming from the Aug. 14, 1993, slaying of 18-year-old Tricia Pacaccio, who was the sister of one of his friends.
After Pacaccio was killed outside her home, Gargiulo moved to Hollywood, where Ellerin’s friends noticed that he showed up uninvited to a party and that he seemed to be “fixated” on her, Akemon said.
Kutcher testified during the guilt phase of the trial that he had spoken to Ellerin on the phone the afternoon she died, and showed up at her home two hours later to pick her up. When she didn’t answer her door, the actor said he looked through a window and saw what he believed was red wine spilled on the carpet. He said he left because he thought Ellerin had already gone out for the night.
The actor — best known for his work on the TV sitcoms “That ’70s Show” and “Two and a Half Men” — said he learned the next day what happened to her, spoke to police and was “freaking out” because he knew his fingerprints would be on the front door of her home.
The young woman’s roommate discovered her dead the next morning. She had been stabbed 47 times in the hallway outside her bathroom in an attack in which she was nearly decapitated.
Gargiulo subsequently moved to El Monte and lived in the same apartment complex where Bruno was “mutilated” as she slept, Akemon said. The prosecutor said Gargiulo stabbed the 32-year-old woman 17 times, cut off her breasts, tried to remove her breast implants and placed one of her breasts on her mouth.
A blue surgical bootie found outside the apartment contained drops of her blood along with Gargiulo’s DNA around the elastic band, and another blue surgical bootie appearing to be the same model was recovered from the attic of the El Monte apartment unit he had rented, the prosecutor said.
Gargiulo was able to escape detection until he accidentally cut himself with a knife during the 2008 attack on Murphy — near where he lived at the time in Santa Monica — and left a “blood trail” during that attack, Akemon said.
Gargiulo was arrested in June 2008 by Santa Monica police in connection with the attack on Murphy and was subsequently charged with the killings of Ellerin and Bruno. Authorities in Illinois charged him in 2011 with Pacaccio’s slaying.
Gargiulo — who has a 1997 felony conviction for burglary in Cook County, Illinois — lived one block away from Pacaccio at the time of her slaying and was good friends with one of her two younger brothers, according to an arrest warrant filed in Cook County.
One of Gargiulo’s attorneys, Daniel Nardoni, suggested in his closing argument in the trial’s guilt phase that other men were responsible for the deadly Southland attacks, telling jurors there was no DNA evidence inside the victims’ homes to link the killings to Gargiulo. He said his client denies killing Ellerin, Bruno and Pacaccio.
Gargiulo’s other lawyer, Rubin, told jurors that the attempted murder charge involving Murphy — in which DNA evidence linked Gargiulo to the attack — was the “only count in which the prosecution has shown Mr. Gargiulo was in her apartment and attacked her.” But the defense attorney said Gargiulo suffered from dissociative identity disorder and may not have been fully aware during that 2008 assault.
In his rebuttal argument, Akemon countered the defense’s claim that Gargiulo woke up in the middle of the attack on Murphy and apologized while running away, questioning why Gargiulo would be apologizing if he just woke up. The prosecutor called Gargiulo a “stone-cold serial killer who preys on women” who lived near him and waited for the perfect opportunity to attack them at night in or near their homes in “totally planned killings.”
The three women who were killed each had injuries to their breasts, with Ellerin and Bruno being attacked shortly after having sex with men who had left their homes, according to Akemon.